21 December 2013

Unexpected (gender) minefields at Christmas

Sticker Dressing: Explorers and Warriors

I popped into Waterstones today to pick up a last minute gift for my wee boy - a pirate stickerbook  that he'd asked Santa for.  As is often the case, I was tempted by the bogohalf-price offer and picked up another book as well.  I'd first looked at the 'explorers and warriors' book this summer, thinking it would suit my daughter - now 7.  So, on impulse today, I picked it up, thinking it would be fun and slightly educational. It's halfway between old-style paperdolls and stickers, with the idea being that you dress the figures in sticker outfits.

But wrapping them up today (early!), I leafed through and was taken aback to find no women in it.  Apparently exploring and defending your country is a purely male activity.  On closer scrutiny, I did find some women  sitting around a campfire with cooking pots in the background behind the 'Sioux warriors'.  But that is it in a book that promises "Young readers can kit out famous explorers and fierce warriors in this fantastic sticker book full of authentic detail.".  350 stickers and 50 pages - history across centuries, but virtually no women. So, not that authentic then. 

Did their 'researchers' think that girls don't get into explorers and warriors? or that boys wouldn't want to dress up female characters? Or -- most worrying given Usborne's saturation of the kiddie market -- are they simply unaware of the female explorers and warriors? 

What about Yaa Asantewaa who led to Gold Coast into rebellion against the British colonisers?  Or Freydis and the other Viking women who sailed to North America and settled in Vinland centuries before Columbus?   Or, closer to home Boudicca?   Not only is there a wikipedia list of female warriors, and a much longer list of women warriors in folklore, but also this rather fine 'top 10 Badass women'.  

I'm pleased that Usborne knows better than to label this the 'boys sticker book of explorers and warriors', but in reality that's what it is.  Now that many retailers are moving away from gendered toys thanks to pressure from Pinkstinks and others, it looks to me like we need to move beyond worrying about the labels, colours, and departments to the content - and see if we can bring that into the 21st century too. I'll start by returning the sticker book. 

17 December 2013

A step change?

We've been asking the Scottish government for 'a step change' in their policies for a while now. But I was taken by surprise today when a step change happened within Scotland's campaigning groups.   This was a very welcome submission from Sustrans about a series of cycle 'improvements' proposed for an area in the north of the city.  I'd looked quickly at these - I've only cycled there occasionally, and don't know the streets well.  So, I was leaving the detailed comments for others.  And Spokes had provided a reasonable critique with their usual sensible suggestions.  But the Sustrans contribution goes well beyond that - it calls for mandatory lanes with 'soft' segregation, for corners to be tightened up, for zebra crossings, and the removal of pedestrian railings.  All of these would go a long way to make the roads safer and far more friendly.

It is not that Sustrans is the first group to call for such details, but that they do so from a position of authority - and with scope to help finance them.  But I also found their approach refreshing. It wasn't tinkering at the margins, or minor suggestions, but instead a whole-scale 'this is what we could do'.  It struck me as particularly strategic that they cut through the on-going wrangle over red-colouring, and pointed out that armadillos might be cheaper than either paint or chips.

This intervention was particularly welcome because this week also brought a number of other tensions to the fore.  Following on from debates on this blog and elsewhere, Keith Irving threw down a gaunlet to the council over shared space.  A response from Cllr Jim Orr about how it works on the continent did little to assuage concerns.

But in a series of emails and tweets cycle campaigning group Spokes hit on the nub of the issue - what should we actually suggest?  In the particular issue of the left turn from the Mound to Princes' St, I've refused to lend my (puny) weight to a solution, as they all seem equally bad. This has been branded a cop out.   But I don't see my role as requiring me to propose alternatives.  Surely that's the council's job?   Spokes has gotten a long way by engaging with the Council to find least-worst options,  but does that mean that all campaigners need to do this?  and that if we don't we're somehow letting this side down?

The case of the Mound-Princes St junction is just one instance where there aren't many good options.  The Meadows-Innocent tunnel consultation is another one -- the current proposals are better than what is currently in place (where NCN 1 is directed through railings and rubbish bins), but it's not great. It's not terribly direct; it requires a number of sharp turns (tricky for kids, tandems, trailers), and it meanders between segregated on-road, shared space pavements, and on-road non-segregated sections. The real block to better provision is the lack of willingness to reducing parking spaces and/or car flow - council officials are constrained by the traffic engineers and political will.  Councillors don't dare to dream big either.  Cllr Orr knows it could be better, but tries to convince us that a compromise is better than nothing.

But Sustrans wading in where many fear to tread is immensely heartening.  They've chosen their case well, and if it goes through, along with Leith Walk, it could really signal a step change in how we think about cycle infrastructure. That's a lot of ifs, but still a heartening place to be at, at the end of a dispiriting few weeks of campaigning.

10 December 2013

Why are developer-built links so dire?

South-West Edinburgh is bifurcated by the Western Approach Rd.  Created by the removal of a train line, and lacking any cycle infrastructure (bikes are banned from most of it), it blasts traffic into the city to Lothian Road.   Presumably because it was built on top of an old railway, there are very few ways across it.  I can understand why it presents a design challenge to urban planners. But the half-hearted and poorly designed attempts to deal with it can only be evidence that Edinburgh has no respect for its cyclists and little aspiration to be a liveable city.

There are three ways across (that I know of) but until yesterday I had only ever used one of them.   And that's because they are impossible to find and crap when you get there. 

Can't go under it: I use the Telfer subway quite a lot to get from Fountainbridge to the Dalry Road and Haymarket.  It's a nice off-road route to our closest Lidl and I've been this way a few times recently with my kids, stocking up on lebkuchen and stollen. It ought to be a good route to and from the Russel Road access to the North Edinburgh Path Network, but it isn't. 

If you're on foot you need to have good eyesight to watch out for dogdirt, and you know to watch out for the cyclists coming around downhills on blind corners -- three of them (if you include the path to Lidl). Oh, and the bollards on the Dalry end aren't wide enough for our trailer, and the crossing at the Fountainbridge is misaligned, and not a toucan.  And it's not at all well signposted from the Dalry side. So all in all, not a route that signals 'we've been thinking how we can make life easier for bike users".  

Can't go across it:  The Springside 'zig-zag' is the newest crossing point, and while I'd heard about it, and seen it from the bus,  I'd not appreciated its true horror. it was included on a 'quiet route' by cyclestreets, which makes sense - it's the sort of infrastructure that would be appreciated by those not wanting to venture onto the busy streets around there.  Once you find the Fountainbridge access point, the route takes you down a reasonably wide, well-signed shared use pavement between two new housing developments, to a downhill slope that takes you to a toucan crossing, and onto another shared use pavement.  So far, so good.  but, faced with a wide, gently sloping space and the need to get cyclists, buggies, and pedestrians up and down, they built what you see here - two sets of stairs, with a  windy cobbled ramp in the middle.  The incline on the ramps is nice and gentle, but it takes forever, and the corners are too tight to negotiate easily even on my 'nippy' folder.   Worst of all, it pushed each user into the footway repeatedly. 

Can't go over it: the final route, I have yet to find, despite cycling this area regularly. I am told that it crosses over the Western Approach and takes cyclists  to Festival Square (which may soon be renamed Mandela Square). If I find it, I'll let you know. 

All of these routes have one thing in common (other than that they've been poorly designed) they've all been built into developments.  It's pretty clear that they've been tacked on by developers, obliged to make their developments accessible to bus stops and  footpaths in order to secure planning permission, but with no real thought to its actual usability. 

What's frustrating is the potential that's been missed, and the resources that have gone into these underutilised feats of engineering.   Why are they so hard to find and use? Why are they not 'intuitive' ? Why don't they make people want to use them? 

Even more frustrating is that the most used one -- the Telfer subway -- is probably the worst designed - bringing cyclists and pedestrians into conflict needlessly day after day. 

Is there any way past this wasteful squandering of space and potential to make cities that are permeable and accessible and liveable? Where are the people with expertise in these areas? and how do we get their knowledge and ideas spread more widely? 

08 December 2013

Better together Part 2

With thanks to Chris Hill for the image from an old
Pedestrians' Association publication.
It's not often that I get to call on my professional skills in cycle blogging, but what strikes me in thinking about the differences of pedestrian v. cycling campaigning is that the differences in tone and style don't just reflect their historical positions or cultures, but also correlate to their institutional positions and material ties. 

That is, cycling organizations include those like Sustrans and Cycling Scotland, who entirely or mainly rely on funding from Transport Scotland for their salaries and projects. But other organizations -- like Spokes and Go-Bike historically and now Pedal on Parliament -- exist without these financial ties because they are volunteer run. Down south, the London Cycling Campaign is a good example of a 'professional' organization that still avoids government funding (to the best of my knowledge).  Is it a coincidence that these groups push a little harder and speak somewhat more critically?  To a large extent groups like Sustrans and Cycling Scotland are basically just sub-contractors for government projects, although they also provide expertise, administer groups like the Cross-Party group on cycling, and are often cited in support of government policy (confusingly, some of the volunteer groups also sit on their boards).

However, pedestrians have a rather different structure as far as I can tell, with Living Streets - the successor to the Pedestrians' Association - combining both roles.  So Living Streets has in recent years received funding from the state, while also running local groups and forums.  Doubtless this has raised their profile, and injected new energy into their operations. The recent '3 seconds' campaign was very impressive in terms of generating public support and media presence.

These different structures suggest to me that #militantpedestrians are going to find it difficult to mount a more radical, critical movement from within LS - that's not a criticism of anyone within the organisation, or of their aims, but a simple organizational analysis drawing on Robert Michel's classic 'iron law of oligarchy' first developed in his 1911 study of the German SPD, and my own research on NGOs in Zimbabwe (I'll resist throwing in any Gramsci or Gaventa).

It's not impossible of course, but my analysis suggests that this organizational imbalance will further impede efforts to build alliances between pedestrians and cyclists. Regrettable, because those ties are needed, but not easily resolved. 

02 December 2013

Better together? Part 1

Cyclists and pedestrians have much in common, but have been pushed apart - quite literally.  It will take a major shift in how they both campaign for them to be able to make common cause.

Let me explain - it's not just that cyclists and pedestrians have been pushed apart physically, although that's part of it.  Pedestrians have gone from being the norm and having the run of the roads, to segregated onto pavements, forced to cross only when the green man deigns to stop traffic for them.  Railings prevent them crossing where they might want to (desire lines), and force them to conform so that they don't obstruct the all powerful 'traffic flow'.  Perversely, cyclists have been pushed in the opposite direction - made to play in traffic.  

So not only do cyclists and pedestrians have profoundly different experiences of using our public roads.

Pedestrians are expected to push buttons and wait patiently for cars to stop for them.  At zebra crossings they wave and nod to 'thank' cars for stopping for them.  They campaign for zebra crossings to be removed. They hesitantly look around at street corners before gingerly venturing out across the road, ignorant of rule 170.  They wait patiently at red men, even when the road is clear.   They're taught 'road safety' at age 3, and never progress beyond behaviour suitable for infants.  And, unsurprisingly, their campaigns reflect this -- 'please sir, may we have some more' pretty much sums up the recent - highly successful - 3 second campaign.  This is no militant demand for rights, but a polite request for people to be nicer to the elderly, infirm and infants. 

Cyclists on the other hand, were pushed more and more into 'training' on how to use the road, with the implication that it is something that needs to be 'learned' and may only be for 'experts' (witness the 'solution' to Edinburgh's tram tracks -- instructions on how to 'use' the intersections).  

But, cyclists have gotten sick of 'vehicular cycling' and being treated like 'moving speed bumps' to slow down the traffic (rather than expecting speed limits to be enforced), and are getting angry.  You hear a lot about the 'cyclists lobby', but never the pedestrian's lobby.   People don't identify themselves as pedestrians.   

But, a lot of cycle lobbyists are convinced that we need to stop people thinking 'cyclists' and move towards thinking about 'people on bikes'.  Their thinking is that only by moving from being an 'out-group' will cycling be treated as mainstream and fully integrated into transport funding and planning.  There's a definite logic about that, but the pedestrian experience suggests that it is this identification that has been so successful at mobilizing campaigns. 

Not sure what the answer is.  At a local level, I'm hoping to build some bridges between cyclists and pedestrians, but there are a lot of challenges -- not just that we have some differing interests (both perceived and real), but also very different cultures and campaigning styles. 

(Part 2/2 will look at the different organisational structures representing pedestrians and cyclists, which reveal a further challenge).